Fifteen-year-old Holly Hogan is an abandoned child, a bad girl with a frozen heart and a nail bomb of anger in her head. After years spent living in a group home and negotiating the social services system of England, Holly is placed with a quiet, comfortable, middle-aged couple. Solace is the older, daring and confident teen that Holly becomes when she dons a blonde wig found hidden away in their house.
Fiona, her foster mom, means well but her New Age ideas just seem dumb to Holly. When her foster dad, Ray, catches her smoking in her room and forbids it; when she cannot make a friend at school; but most of all when she learns that Fiona only wants her because she can't have a child of her own, that's it - time to go.
When she puts on the blonde wig, Holly feels transformed into the kind of girl she would like to be. Hitting the road, armed only with a map, a cell phone and an iPod, she sees herself as "Solace the Unstoppable, the smooth-walking, sharp-talking glamour girl," off to find her Mam in the green grass of Ireland across the sea. Just the act of setting out is empowering. Soon she adds to her alter-ego's disguise with a new sexy dress and shoes (nicked, of course), and despite rain, lack of funds, and dangerous strangers, she is on her way from London via Oxford to Fishguard, where the ferry leaves for Ireland.
For a teen reader, this is the perfect road trip novel. What teen has not contemplated running away to live life on her own terms? The majority of reviews I've seen are glowing, including one by a thirteen-year-old who recommends the book to "teenage girls who like to read realistic stories about true-life problems." Well, yes, but Solace's many breathless escapes from danger and fortunate encounters when all is bleak make Solace of the Road almost fantasy. For me, that was the wonder of the story. Amid the gritty reality of modern life, child abuse, drug habits and lockdown as a disciplinary tool, Solace rises into a dream state where the magic charms of her wig and her Mam lead her ever closer to her goal. I find it telling that the teen reviewer saw the story as realistic. My teen years were filled with wishes and attempts to be someone I was not, someone more self assured, more cool and for sure better looking. I spent hours in dream worlds about boys, music and freedom from adults. To me at the time though, it was ALL REAL.
Finally the magic fails her when the dream states lead Holly to face the truth about her past and the source of her anger. Having been forced to read Jane Eyre at school, Holly compares experiences during her journey to Jane's, often expressing disdain for the way Jane handled things. Solace is so much more cool and in control than Jane, but at last she is no longer in control of Holly. In the end, when Holly finds her own place in the world, I felt happy for her, but also so sad that her reality doesn't always match her dreams. I'm pretty sure a teen reader would feel the story turns out the way it should. The road trip is exciting, dangerous, and even funny, but Dowd knows that Holly's story also needs enough reality to ring true.
Recommended for readers ages 14 and up.
This review was originally published in November 2009, and has been updated for the April 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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